Three decades to outlawed driving

In Newsletter Editorial5 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineSeptember 3, 2021

This week I received the PR equivalent of a horror film. The kind you know you shouldn’t watch, but grit your teeth and do so anyway to see who makes it out alive. I read the title and immediately knew reading further would cause me some mental distress, but I did it in the interests of professionalism and morbid curiosity.

“Driving will be outlawed by 2050,” it said – if that’s not the stuff of nightmares. Not that it should come as a surprise, given how rapidly the automotive landscape is changing.

But could it happen? If the report by British think tank IDTechEx is to be believed – yes. The technology is there; we’re just waiting for the legislation.

Level-3 autonomy, where the driver has only to keep their eyes on the roads in some situations, has been ready since 2017. The likes of Japan, Germany and Britain may have level-3 vehicles on their roads by the end of the year. IDTechEx expects significant adoption of level 3 and level 4 (one step away from fully driverless) technology within the car market in 10 to 20 years.

The report says that autonomous vehicles “connected with 5G receive more information about their surroundings than human drivers could ever see or process.

“There is a good reason that computers are so ingrained into our everyday life; they can deal with more data than we can, they process it faster, and they do not make mistakes.”

Sure… If you’ve ever lost cell phone reception or had a piece of technology let you down at a critical moment – and we all have – you’ll agree no electronics system is failproof.

But consider we’re now closer to 2050 than 1990 (send shivers down your spine?) and how exponentially technology advanced between 2005 and 2020 compared with the 15 years before. It stands to reason that this exponential advancement will continue. Problem solved.

Maybe, but behind every good computer will still be a human. Humans, the report suggests, are good enough to design driverless vehicle technology, but not good enough to continue doing the driving. “Eventually, manual driving could become completely illegal on public roads in the interest of safety,” says the report, adding that by 2050 autonomous vehicles could “meet the world’s transportation needs with fewer than one collision per year”.

That’s a bold claim considering the infinite variables. If we make mistakes driving, how can we ensure we don’t cock up designing global driverless systems?

Interestingly, the report makes no mention of autonomy in commercial vehicles. We know their development is well down the road, and there are a few vehicles testing in the United States with the driver on board merely as an observer. I’d be interested to know when the researchers expect heavy-vehicle drivers to be forced to ‘take the back seat’, too? That’s a writhing can of worms for another time.

I’d also be interested to see how the concept truly stacks up at a micro-scale. The report says autonomous vehicles will meet the total mobility demand of the US by 2046. But I can speak from experience and say emphatically that the chance of an autonomous Africa is quite low – as I imagine it is in other areas of the world whose priorities will remain fundamental for some time yet. What about countries with unpredictable weather and natural occurrences? Or those with undulating landscapes, patchy communications infrastructure, and declining levels of road maintenance. Pick a New Zealand road outside of a major urban area and think about whether you’d trust being in an autonomous vehicle.

I’m sorry, if that’s the case, count me out. I don’t want to watch.

Take care out there,

Gavin Myers
Assistant editor